For some of us, the 1990s don’t feel like they happened that long ago. And yet, life is a constant sea of change, and whether it’s technology, fashion, politics or something else, the world looks and feels a lot different now than it did just a few decades ago. It is precisely because of these many evolving factors that the less tangible aspects of life change as well.
Take trends in carwashing, for instance. According to International Carwash Association, in 1994, only 48% of people most frequently washed their cars at a professional carwash — meaning the other 52% wanted to do it themselves in the driveway. In 2019, the number of professional carwash users jumped up to 77%, and it only continues to grow.
Part of this trend has resulted from a change in consumer feeling and behavior: Many customers feel busier and more stressed out than ever and do not have the time nor desire to wash their own cars, which they see as a chore.
So what do you do when you’re a self-serve carwash and your business is based on attracting people to take the time to wash their own cars — and outside of their own driveways at that? According to Ryan Davis, president of Wild Water Car Wash & Pet Wash, you have to provide a positive experience outside of washing a car.
“There’s only so many ways to clean a car, and with the industry today, it would be so difficult to produce less than satisfactory service,” Davis explains. “So, we add light shows and scents to help them relax in a busy society and offer the customers what they need. But also, if they have an issue, the customers know us; they know we make it right.”
Adapting to the new age
The original Wild Water Car Wash & Pet Wash site is located in the heart of Ames, Iowa — just a mile from Iowa State University. The carwash has stood since 1976, but it wasn’t until 2004 — eight years after he started working there — that Davis purchased it. Since then, it has undergone renovations and name changes to keep up with the times. After 16 years of improving the business and growing it, Davis managed to purchase a second location in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 2020. Davis keeps both washes attended and maintained with high standards.
These standards are critical, after all, because there’s something else Davis says has changed since he started working at the carwash in 1996. “Competition is so cutthroat — more so today than it was 25 years ago. Nobody wants you to make a buck on them,” he proclaims.
For that reason, Davis has worked to set his carwashes apart from other self-serves.
The Ames location features two touchless in-bay automatics (IBAs), seven self-serve bays, one large vehicle bay, two self-serve pet washes and eight multifunction vacuums. One unique aspect of the Ames location’s layout is that there are two buildings on the property. The main building contains one of the IBAs as well as seven bays. However, instead of all the bays being laid out in one straight line, four bays line the front of the building while three bays line the back.
The second building on the property is on the opposite side of the back parking lot and features the second IBA as well as the large vehicle bay. A small, attached brick enclosure houses the pet washes.
The Fort Dodge location is a little bit of a drive from the Ames one — slightly over an hour. However, what made the site work for them was that Davis’ brother-in-law, who has worked for him for over five years in a part-time role, lives nearby. “It was also a good training site as we look to expand our footprint,” Davis says.
The Fort Dodge location boasts five bays, one self-serve pet wash and four vacuums. While it hasn’t been under Davis’ ownership very long, it’s already undergone renovations to improve its façade and equipment.
“We have done a major upgrade to our Fort Dodge location,” Davis says. “The basics were there, it was in rough shape, but we saw a nice potential upside.”
In addition to renovating the exterior façade, Davis also added new meter boxes, payment upgrades (for loyalty cards, credit cards and app scans), additional wash functions (such as ceramic coating, triple foam and air dryers), cameras, LED lighting, a pet wash and more vacuums.
Just as Iowa State University is known for its research, Wild Water also dabbles in it.
“We have done some R&D for some companies. It could be helping them develop or improve a product or just testing something new. We tend to be guinea pigs. I think we’ve touched just about everything. We’ve done wash equipment, chemicals [and] point-of-sale systems. We provide the feedback to help make items better,” Davis explains.
Even beyond being a testing ground, Wild Water tends to be on the forefront of technology usage. According to the upcoming 2021 Professional Carwashing Industry Report from Professional Carwashing & Detailing, 57% of self-serves offer none of the following: fleet programs, loyalty programs, wash clubs or gift cards. And yet, Wild Water offers them all.
“[We’re] always looking for something to help us run the carwash at its best consistently,” Davis states. “We’ve had loyalty card technology for 30 years [and] equipment that monitors just about everything, including chemicals. [We upgraded] to touchscreen pay stations five years ago. We accept cash, coin, credit cards and virtual payments through our [wash app]. It is our goal to make sure that the customer receives a clean car and believes they have received a quality product for a quality price.”
Before the age of apps, the loyalty card program, which Wild Water still uses, was innovative. The loyalty cards can be used as rewards cards or reloadable gift cards, and they are useable at all parts of the carwash. The cards can be managed online, which allows Wild Water to email users specials and promotions. As part of the rewards, Wild Water gives 10% off with every wash, vacuum or vending purchase, and customers who spend more than $25 per month get an extra discount. Wild Water also uses these cards for fleet accounts.
Today, of course, apps are the new tool businesses use to help customers keep track of their information and access the business directly without having to go to a website. As you can imagine, Wild Water has also jumped on board. The wash app that Wild Water utilizes allows customers to earn free washes and loyalty points, have a 48-hour rain check, get a free vacuum with an automatic carwash purchase, utilize contactless payment, and receive text and email specials.
“Our carwash has adapted to change,” Davis asserts. “Sometimes it’s hard to do based on infrastructure, [but] we’ve really embraced technology to handle some of the normal day-to-day inspections or things that easily get overlooked. It seems like our customers are busier, [more stressed] and less patient than in years past. So, anything you can do to help their day go a little bit better is a positive.”
In addition, as a member of Watersavers®, Wild Water has also invested in eco-friendly technology to keep it in line with some of the best water-saving practices. Not only does the carwash recycle its water, but it also has high-efficiency boilers, furnaces and water heaters, and it uses monitoring technology to help save resources. In fact, Wild Water has been so invested in going green that it earned The City of Ames Smart Business Platinum Award. For this award, there are five different levels based on how many eco-friendly practices are in place, and Wild Water not only earned the highest level — platinum — but it was, in fact, one of the first five businesses in the city to do so.
Just as life has evolved on Earth for billions of years, so too must businesses evolve — though at much faster rates — in order to stay relevant and in the black. As such, Davis concludes by leaving us with this piece of advice: “Always try to improve, day after day.”